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Saturday morning quotes 4.7: Impressions

June 28, 2014

Polyphony, or the sound of several independent voices in coordination, is an important characteristic of early music.  Historically, polyphonic repertoire was written into separate part books for individual singers, and musical  notation for the lute and keyboard first emerged as a means of condensing the separate parts onto a single stave, enabling one person to either direct the singing of others or else perform the many parts on a lute or keyboard instrument as a solo.

[To hear singing in parts performed by several singers is good but] to sing to the lute is much better, because all the sweetness consisteth in one alone and a man … understands the better the feat manner and the air or vein of it when the ears are not busied in hearing any more than one voice …

– Thomas Hoby, The Book of the Courtyer, 1561

We have discussed playing polyphonic music on the lute in several previous posts, and how it is essential to have an awareness of the intertwining parts of a piece that was conceived as a conversation among several voices. For a lutenist it can be like directing a complex flow of traffic, except the lutenist is also responsible for being the traffic he or she directs.

Last week, we made a short trip to sing for the Feast of Corpus Christi, an important event on the church calendar that involves quite a lot of music sung from the choir loft and in procession.  By happenstance, that same evening we were treated to a concert of solo lute music performed by Nigel North, which we attended in the company of two organists who are well versed in the solo performance of polyphonic music.

Nigel North performed a concert of lute music from the first half of the sixteenth century, mainly featuring solos by composers Francesco da Milano and Albert de Rippe.  The program was seasoned  with a few dances, including a pavan and galliard pair by Albert de Rippe that was the subject of a published article and a previous blog post by yours truly. But the main feature of the concert consisted of polyphonic intabulations of vocal music and instrumental fantasias by Albert and Francesco, all of which were performed with a masterful sense of direction and sublimely clear separation of voices.

The music was pure magic and the concert left a lasting impression on the four of us, polyphonists all.  Bravo.

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